Muzium Alam Semulajadi in Putrajaya is one of those rare gems you can find a unique display of animals from around Malaysia.There are stuffed examples of each animal together with displays providing facts and trivia relating to the species like tigers, a baby Asian elephant, the Sumatran rhinoceros, Sun bear, Mainland serow,deer, primates, otters, a pangolin, squirrels and rodents.
Mohd Ridhuan Akhiruddin, Head of Taxidermy at this museum explained that the word taxidermy is derived from two ancient Greek words: taxis, meaning movement, and derma, meaning skin. Taxidermy can be done on all vertebrate species of animals, including mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians. The procedure involves removing the natural skin of the specimen, placing this skin over an artificial body and adjusting the skin until it appears lifelike and is ready for permanent display.
Ridhuan told us that there are several methods used in taxidermy. For example, in bird taxidermy, the taxidermist must paint the legs, feet and bill, but the feathers retain their natural colour. In mammal taxidermy, the taxidermist must paint the nose and eyes, but the fur does not require colour correction. For fish, however, the taxidermist must paint every square inch of the specimen and make it appear natural. Among professionals, it is generally agreed that the most difficult branch of taxidermy is fish mounting.
Creating a technically accurate fish mount can be a real challenge. When a fish skin dries, most of the colour goes away, leaving only brownish patterns on the skin and scales. Therefore, the ability to draw, paint and mix colours is an added advantage for Ridhuan who majored in Fine Arts with Art Design at the Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM). His art and design background helps to make the fish mounting look realistic.
When asked about the fish-mounting process, he told us that there are different ways to produce a fish mount, and taxidermists are usually required to choose mounting methods that match their subjects. For example, the skin-mounting method is good for warm-water fish, which have tough skins and large scales, such as arowana, crappie and bass. A skin mount involves skinning and preserving the fish. The preferred method for mounting cold-water fish such as trout and koi, which have smooth skins with fine scales, is over a smooth foam manikin. The natural skulls are sometimes used, but due to problems with contraction, spoiling and grease bleed-through, many taxidermists use artificial heads (cast in polyester resin) that are attached to a natural skin-mounted body.
Most saltwater fish are entirely recreated with man-made materials. Without question, these synthetic mounts are the most long-lasting taxidermy renderings. While the fish is fresh, a carefully constructed mould of the fish is made.
Then, the body and fins of the fish are cast in fibreglass-reinforced polyester resin. With no markings or colour on the mount, the taxidermist must add colour to make it appear to be a live fish. Fish that have thin and non-leathery skins, which are more difficult to mount, are usually preserved in alcohol.
For Ridhuan, the most memorable specimen he and his team have preserved is that of a 40-foot long of the Bryde whale skeleton that needed to be reassembled. The whale was found dead in 2005 on the seashore in Labuan. They buried the whale for almost two years to separate the skeleton from the whale’s flesh. After two years, they dug it up and took the skeleton to the museum. Today, the whale is a part of the mammal exhibition.
So where do taxidermists get all their specimens? The museum has a special group that captures these specimens. However, they do need to get permission from Jabatan Perhilitan, Jabatan Perhutanan and JabatanPerikanan to avoid cases of extinction. There also some outside donors who are willing to offer specimens to the museum for educational purposes.
We already know about stress in the workplace, and the job of a taxidermist is no different. The main pressure point is having to preserve and complete specimens without enough time. For example, when there is an upcoming exhibition, the taxidermy team must scramble to complete the specimens properly. Sometimes, when there isn’t enough time, they have to put these specimens into chemicals so that their purity will not be affected.
Unfortunately, this highly respected work is one of the most misunderstood. People assume that the animals used will contribute to the illegal sale of animals and will not be used for educational purposes. Ridhuan finds this attitude very frustrating. He offered some sound advice to future taxidermists, saying that this job requires a lot of patience and a great deal of interest. The combination of these will produce a rewarding career.